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Dreams in Surinamese Amerindian Cosmology 

Elizabeth Mohkamsing-den Boer, Ph.D. 

Dreams play an important role in Surinamese Amerindian life. Dreams or rather dream 
sharing forms an important element in this oral tradition where people enjoy story telling 
for entertainment. Dreams also have a function in the transference of traditional 
knowledge, or change traditional customs. Dreams may also help in coming to terms with 
major life cycle events and in taking difficult decisions in life. Here, I will focus on the 
function of dreams occurring in major events in life such as death. [1] 

'Dreams prepare your emotions', is one of the main comments that I frequently heard 
during my research in Kari'na and Arawak villages in the coastal area of Suriname (2001, 
2004). This statement reaches to the heart of the function of dreams during important 
changes in the lives of Kari'na and Arawak peoples in Suriname (as well as of many of 
these people who migrated to the Netherlands). For this genre of dreams, I have coined 
the term, Reves de Passage (dreams of passage), to characterize the distinct nature of 
these dreams (Mohkamsing-den Boer 1998, Mohkamsing-den Boer & Zock 2004). This 
term is not only useful for easy reference for a specific category of dreams, but as such 
helpful in eventually analysing these kinds of dreams from a relational point of view. It 
should be clear that in coining the term, I have consciously adapted Van Gennep's (1909) 
Rites de Passage and Roheim's (1945) notion 'Mythe de Passage' in The Eternal Ones of 
the Dream. From object relations theory I have taken Winnicott's theory on transitional 
phenomena into account (1971); Reves de Passage refers not only to the individual 
psychological value of these dreams as events accompanying social changes, but also to 
their function for individuals as transitional phenomena facilitating those transitions. [2] 

Despite the importance of dreams, not much research has been done in this field. In this 
article I will get into the Amerindian notions on dreams and the relation of dreams to the 
cosmology and give some examples of the role the dreams play in daily life. -[3] 

The Indigenous People of Suriname 

Suriname is also known as one of the five Guyanas," and has a small indigenous 
population. The country is located in the lowlands of Amazonia and has almost 500,000 
inhabitants of which about 3.7% belong to one of the indigenous groups, and of whom 
around 60% live in indigenous villages." Both the north and the south of Suriname are 
inhabited mainly by Amerindians belonging to the Carib linguistic family, to which the 
Kari'na in the north and the Trio, Wayana, Akuriyo, and a handful of Sikiiyana and 
Tunayana in the south belong. Both the Lokono or Arawak of the coastal region and a 
few Mawayana in the south belong to the Arawak linguistic units (Carlin & Boven, 2002: 
37), Warau does not belong to these specified language groups. [4] 

The Lokono or Arawak- community is spread over the north of the country. Only a few 
of the elder generation speak the Lokono language." Along with this decline in the 
number of speakers, stories, traditions and rituals also disappear rapidly. Literature on 
this group in Suriname is scarce.- Apart from linguistics, almost nothing is known about 
behavior and cosmology. For some regions and many indigenous inhabitants of Suriname 
it seems already too late to change this situation, especially for the Sikiiyana, Tunayana 
and Mawayana in Suriname who are virtually on the edge of extinction. Of the Sikkiyana 
and Tunanyan around 15 individuals are left, the last handful of present Mawayana are 
the last survivors of this group in Suriname. The southern indigenous people lived in a 
fairly isolated way until the 1970s when an airstrip was constructed. U ntil then their 
traditional way of living had remained almost unaffected by western lifestyle. In the past 
three decades about 80-90% of these southern indigenous people have converted to 
Christianity. 1 ^] 

The present similarities between the culture and cosmology of the different indigenous 
groups in the coastal area are striking and justify a general approach to their cosmology. 
Riviere (1987: 303) also argued "that the myths of the Amazonian Indians incorporate 
many identical components that have roughly similar meanings, but the way in which any 
particular group combines them is idiosyncratic; this idiosyncrasy being the expression of 


the group's social and cultural uniqueness".- Similarly, there are differences and 
resemblances between the southern and the northern regions. [6] 

Indigenous Concepts of Dreaming 

In indigenous Suriname, the meaning and function of dreams is usually defined through 
the conceptions of the spirit world. To understand the value and function of the dreams, I 
first make a survey of the conceptions of the spirit world and the way the indigenous 
people relate to their environment. I noticed that knowledge of these subjects is usually 
passed down through story telling,- dreams or through dream-connected stories. Van 
Kempen (2002: 144) observes that music, singing, dance and song texts are usually one 
inseparable whole, embedded in ritual or festive events. I have observed that these form 
one whole with the mythology, thus showing how in the traditional worldview nothing 
exists independently in itself. [7] 

Openness on personal matters does not mean that one also has immediate access to the 
private world of cosmology. This can be the exclusive area of the religious specialist, the 
piyai. More specifically, only the initiated piyai has the knowledge of and entrance to this 
secret and virtually mythical realm. [8] 

It is with reference to this world that we need to understand the socio-cultural place of 
dreams and the role dreams play in cosmology and social life. Depending from which 
perspective one approaches dreams, there are as many ideas on what a dream is and how 
it functions. Sociological, psychological, religious, or other approaches (in one or more 
combinations) offer different solutions. On the direct connection between daily life on the 
one hand, and cosmology and dreams on the other, the anthropologist Magana (1989: 
137) writes that myths, proverbs, ordinary sayings, etc., as well as implements, farming 

the land and all kinds of acts in society are part of the cosmology, and are thus retraceable 
in daily life. [9] 

There exist different ideas on what a dream is and what happens when a person is 
dreaming, also in an Amerindian context. The earliest records suggest a relationship 
between dreams and important psychological and eschatological processes. The soul 
leaves the body during sleep and accordingly both falling asleep and awakening are 
dangerous transitions. De Goeje (1943: 7), for example, reports that according to the 

Sleep is temporarily death. During sleep the soul leaves the body: 
it issues from an opening in the skull as small as a pin-prick. When 
we awake the harmony of times flashes through the awakening 
brain as a dream and in its turn is formed into thought and speech. 
Dreams mostly are vague memories of former lives, forming the 
life-cycle. To awaken somebody is dangerous; the soul might not 
return. [10] 

Jara (1990: 314) also refers to the relationship between dreaming and death among the 
Akuriyo of Suriname: "Death is conceived as a journey through the world of dreams from 
which there is no return." Among the Kari'na and Arawak, I have found some evidence 
of the idea of the soul leaving the body during sleep, as people insist that a person has to 
be awakened very carefully or better not at all. I have also found some evidence of 
memories of former lives, however this is a subject that requires more research. On 
dreams De Goeje (1943: 7) remarks that according to the Kari'na: 

the soul or part of the soul (aka-ri) resides in the head. When a 
person is asleep the nature-spirit (yurokon) comes, takes hold of 
the aks-ri and drags it into the wood; and that is the dream. [...] 
When the aka-ri has been taken away by a bad spirit, the person 
grows mad or weak. [11] 

He continues with this idea on the nature of dreams: "The Indian considers dreams as real 
happenings or as a prophecy or a hint as to what he is to do" (1943: 8). This comes very 
close to what I found: the belief in the portentous capacity of dreams.— Many dreams are 
interpreted as premonitions about death, health, social relations (such as change or 
disruption) and availability of game, mediated by dream.— [12] 

Dreams were and are highly valued, and as already Nimuendaju (1914: 46), a Brazilian of 
German descent, who was accepted as a member of a tribe of Guaranis, writes about this 
Brazilian Amazonians: "Who dreams, knows and can do much more, than who doesn't 
dream, therefore the medicine men cultivate the dreams as an important source of their 
knowledge and power".— About the Sipaias he writes: "The source of the entire wisdom 
of the medicine men is dreams" (1919: xiv). — [13] 

Since the early days of colonization the indigenous people of the coastal area have been 
subjected to missionary activities. As a consequence, the majority have adopted the 

Christian faith, i.e. Roman Catholic or EBG (Evangelische Broeder Gemeente, 
Evangelical Brethren Community).— Besides the strong Christian influences, there are 
strong Creole and Maroon influences as well as from the beginning of slavery in 
Suriname there was interaction with escaped slaves. Hence, the Kari'na and Arawak 
conceive part of their cultural heritage as typically indigenous, but also recognize many 
Christian and Creole influences. In particular, the rites and ceremonies related to 
initiation, death and mourning rituals are conceived in essence as their own heritage 
however with recognition of the non- Amerindian elements, which are plenty in the 
Suriname's multi-ethnic society.— This same idea of recognition of in fluences is found 
in notions of the visible and invisible world. [14] 

An interesting challenge that faces us now is how to understand and translate the 
indigenous cosmology into a comprehensible terminology. In the past the invented 
patterns of understanding proved to be impracticable, as the world cannot be divided 
simply into 'natural' and 'supernatural' categories when speaking about spiritual life. In 
particular, the people of the Amazon do not themselves conceive these spirits in those 
terms. -[15] 

On the one hand, spirits form a part of daily reality, and the spirit world is an extension of 
the visible, social world, though 'distinct yet not separate'.— According to indigenous 
informants, both the spirit and the animal societies do not differ much from human 
society, and are considered equal (Vernooij 1993: 13). Or, as Boven (1998: 15) observes 
among the Wayana, "spirits are considered different by the Wayana, but are just as real 
as, for example, Americans." Animals are called inhabitants of the forest and the 
indigenous people inhabitants of the villages, which have a relation of exchange. 
Notably, both groups, humans and animal, are structured socially in a strikingly similar 
way; both have village heads, called grandfather, and religious specialists (Magana 1989: 
139; Jara 1990: 172). The animal piyai communicates with men mainly through dreams 
and the interpretation, sometimes with the help of a piyai, determines what the dream will 

i o 

do during the day (Magana 1989: 141).— On the other hand, a distinction is clearly 
discernible in the Cariban languages. Whenever somebody or something from the spirit 
world is referred to, the related noun gets the suffix '-me'. A Trio example of this is: 

w'itoto nere 
Human, being he 
He is a human being 



Human. being-FACS [facsimile] he 

He's manifestly a human being (he is a human being but not 

inherently so, 

he's a facsimile human) (Carlin 2002: 50) [16] 

Arhem (1993) called this aspect in Amerindian cosmology "perspectival quality: the 
conception, common to many peoples of the continent, according to which the world is 

inhabited by different sorts of subjects or persons, human and non-human, which 
apprehend reality from distinct points of view".— Riviere (1994) speaks of 'What You 
See Is Not Necessarily What You Get' in Amazonia. Not everything is as it seems to be, 
the transformational nature is part of reality and appearances can be deceptive: "The body 
serves only as a cover or 'dress' for the free soul". 20 Malajuwara (1998: 63) claims of 
the Surinamese Kari'na that the soul is the energy that provides life, this energy 
originates from the Origin, Tamusi, and therefore equal to the Origin, thus every living 
being is pervaded by energy from the same source. [17] 

Dreams and Cosmology 

Mircea Eliade (1958: 128) believed that religion, rite and dream are connected, and that 
initiation appears less often in ritual performances than it does in dreams. "But", he 
observes, "there is yet more: the imaginative activity and the dream experiences of 
modern men continue to be pervaded by religious symbols, figures, and themes. As some 
psychologists delight in repeating, the unconscious is religious." Grimes (2000: 101) 
elaborates this notion when saying that "in dreams, fantasies, psychotherapy, and the arts, 
we stumble unwittingly through initiation patterns." This process is probably often indeed 
unwitting. However, in some cultures such as those of the Surinamese indigenous people, 
these patterns are accompanied by rites and the associated dreams may appear to be 
noticed and even treasured as forming part of the transition, as has already been noted by 
Roheim (1943). [18] 

Dreams with religious or rather cosmological and ritual elements are here the main focus. 
To avoid confusion I prefer the term 'cosmology' instead of 'religion' in the Amerindian 
case, because in these societies the sacred and profane belong to 'distinct yet not 
separated' areas.— Nature and the mechanism of the universe are connected and 
interrelated in every possible way, including human beings and all other creatures, as 
Mathews (1994: 12)"" recognizes: 

[AJcosmology serves to orient a community to its world, in the 
sense that it defines, for the community in question, the place of 
humankind in the cosmic scheme of things. Such cosmic 
orientation tells the members of the community, in the broadest 
possible terms, who they are and where they stand in relation to 
the rest of creation. [19] 

My preference for the term cosmology instead of religion in the Amerindian cultures is 
based on their cosmogonies, as the body of the stories, myths, and theories relating to the 
origin of the universe, and of human beings (Bowie 2000, p. 1 19). In this regard it is 
useful to make a distinction between cosmologies which are based on the idea of creation 
of the universe ex nihilo, such as we find in the Thora, and creation of the universe out of 
something (already existing), for example as found in Australian Aboriginal and Hindu 
cosmogony. In the former there is no natural bond between God and nature, for God did 
not share any of His substance or body with nature; so nature is not 'iconically' 

connected with God. In the latter cosmology, however, the pervasiveness of the spiritual 
or the divine is one of the features of religion, which means that there is a natural bridge 
between God and the created universe.^ I similarly perceive Descola's (1994: 1) attempt 
to deal with "the conceptions of the world presented as mutually exclusive: the one sees 
nature as an animate twin of society, the other conceives it as the set of phenomena 
occurring outside the realm of human action." In Surinamese Amerindian thinking the 
former notion is dominant. The physical environment determines and affects human life 
in general and particularly in the Surinamese Amerindian culture. Reichel-Dolmatoff 
(1996: 9) in studying the Tukano of Colombia observes: 

So if you see an Indian walking in the forest or paddling a canoe on a river, he is not 'in 
nature' but he is entirely surrounded by cultural meanings, by meanings his cultural 
tradition has given to his external surroundings. [20] 

This relationship is applied consciously in culture and cosmology. The relationship 
between the human and spirit world as created through the notion of creation out of 
something, at least in the Amazonian cases, leads to environmental cosmologies. These 
can be defined as "cosmologies in which the interdependence of human life and the 
ecosystems that sustain them are made conscious and are embodied at the level of myth, 
ritual, language, and lifestyle" (Bowie 2000: 141). The conception of the cosmos in 
Amazonian thinking is accordingly "non-human centred and non-hierarchical - all parts 
of the natural and supernatural world are equal, contain moral agency and are sentient" 
(cf. Strang 1997: 238). The sacredness of living things and their connections is central in 
(inter)action and thinking.— Borsboom (2003: 82) attributes certain qualities to the 
religions of the most remote parts of Australia, which shows that the term 'cosmology' is 
indeed approp riate, as in those societies it penetrates into all realms, this can be 
compared to Amazonian life: it is esoteric (religious in the Western sense of the word), 
epistemological (it contains a theory of knowledge), and social (expressing and imposing 
moral codes of behavior). To which I add psychological as it forms and affects the self. 

I take the presumed natural bond between the spiritual and physical environment as one 
of the starting points in the application of object relations theory. To have contact with 
and to relate to the environment and the spirit world (conceived as interrelated and 
inseparable), dreams, besides rituals, are considered to play an important regulating and 
transmitting role. The importance and function of dreams cannot be separated from the 
cosmology since much of their origin, meaning and function is rooted in the mythology, 
from which in earlier days many dream symbols have developed. [22] 

Reve de Passage 

Dreams, like rites and myths, comprise one of the ways in which the self is realized in the 
object-world, and take place in the transitional space. Considering this with the theories 
described above, I now come to the following description of reve de passage. The 
concept of reve de passage (dream of passage) indicates that this kind of dreams 

accompanies (major) changes in life, such as birth/parenthood, initiation, marriage, death, 
and enables individuals to facilitate, or to cope with these transitions with the help of 
cultural or religious images. This implies that a) like rituals and myths, dreams can have a 
transitional function, b) that they can support important changes in life and c) that in the 
dreams, social and religious meanings drawn from the cultural environment may be 
creatively appropriated. [23] 

Another approach to dreams of passage is to analyze them as having a triple layer of 
meaning. The first layer, which is always present, concerns the personal situation of the 
dreamer and the individual consequences of the dream. The second layer shows the 
spiritual importance of the dreams which the dreamer believes to be connected with the 
spirit world. The third layer, which is not always present, concerns the community; it 
refers to the cultural and religious background and implies social consequences of the 
dream for (a part of) the community. Referring to Victor Turner's concept of 'social 
drama' (1974 [1969]: 37) it appears that in cases of social crisis, dreams can play a role in 
solving a crisis within a kin group or community. [24] 

The dream process shows similarities with initiation rites, for example, in its tripartite 
structure. The first phase is separation: by falling asleep the dreamer is literally separated 
from the active, external world into another (altered) state of consciousness, and enters 
into the internal, private realm of the dream-space. Next, there is the dream as the liminal 
phase entailing information about the transition (the new situation). In the rite this is the 
period in which, for instance, the initiate is placed symbolically 'outside the society.' 
During sleep and dream, the dreamer is also temporarily in a comparable situation. 
Finally, the dreamer awakes and re-enters society, and by remembering and eventually 
sharing the dream incorporates the contents or message of the dream into one's life and 
into society. The sequence, entree - victime - sortie, proposed by Hubert and Mauss for 
studying specific forms of sacrifice ([1898] 1954: 19-50), could well serve as an example 
of Van Genne p's rites of passage. Lincoln's shift of terminology proves useful for the 
diversity in transitions in the life cycle, and thus the accompanying dreams: the dream 
process aids in rounding off a certain period or occasion in one's life and looking for 
enclosure. The actual dream (transitional period) magnifies the event and emotions, 
stimulating change/metamorphosis and incorporation. Mostly incorporation of changes in 
life are not spectacular, but sometimes they indeed manifest themselves as "emerging 
from the chrysalis" (Lincoln 1981). [25] 

The (generally metaphorical) change of status is of main importance in both models. In 
the function of dreams in changing status and facilitating change, time plays another role, 
viz. that of the time span between dreaming, sharing and change which is variable, from a 
short period to a very long period of even years. This is one of the reasons why the aspect 
of dream sharing is of such importance. [26] 

A transitional dream contains cultural and/or religious elements. Many dream images or 
symbols seem ordinary, but they are part of the culture, which is inseparable from 
religious life. These apparently ordinary symbols (such as a brand new hut or losing teeth 
are Amerindian symbols for death) can be placed in the framework of the transitional 

dream, as they are culturally defined. Also in the case of the Arawak and Kari'na, 
symbolism is deeply rooted in the culture, even if the original link between the symbol 
and the religious meaning often seems to have been lost. These people have been 
converts to Christianity— for generations. Some of the elder generation refer to those 
stuck to their 'authentic' cultural ways as pagans in fear of clerical sanction, but 
nevertheless follow the traditional system. [27] 

Medicinal Plants 

As mentioned above concerning the Guaranis and the Sipaias, some Amerindians 
acknowledge the value of dreams for their medicine men, in particular in the field of 
medicinal plants. The piyaikon claim that they learn about plants during their 
apprenticeship from a teacher, and significantly through dreams. Plants appear in their 
dreams, and a proper reaction to them leads to knowledge that comes directly from the 
spirit of the plant itself. This in contrary to ordinary people who will usually tell how they 
learned it only from their parents and grandparents. [28] 

As for their healing capacity, the plants should not be taken for granted; they should only 
be picked when needed, used in the proper way and thanked for their help, otherwise the 
spirits will withdraw and cease to transfer knowledge. Without exception all Amerindians 
in Suriname with whom I spoke and who work with medicinal plants, emphasize that 
they obtain their knowledge mainly through dreams. [29] 

The following case, underlines the link between piyai and medicinal plants. Years ago, I 
met a woman who struggled with the question as to whether she should allow herself to 
be initiated as a piyai, a religious specialist. She was born and raised in a Kari'na village, 
but was now living in the capital. She told me how not long after the demise of her 
maternal grandfather (around 1999), she visited her aunt who lives in a Kari'na village in 
French Guyana. At the end of this visit her aunt offered her cuttings of medicinal plants. 
This aunt was aware of her interest and love for her own indigenous culture, religion and 
practices, and thus assumed that these cuttings would be appreciated and cared for in the 
appropriate way. Customarily these plants should not be given away but should be 
'stolen' by the one who intends to use them. Asking for them is therefore 'senseless.' So 
the option that remains is the culturally accepted way of obtaining the plants without 
explicit permission, viz. by st ealing them. She however was offered them by her aunt 
although without asking for them. Now, she recalls the consequences: 

When returning home I planted the herbs in the garden of my 
house in Paramaribo. The cuttings grew beautifully. However I 
neglected them without ever utilising them. Then I started to 
dream. I dreamt of the plants; all their leaves were on a big heap 
and my husband placed in the middle, naked. This dream returned 
day after day for a while. The dream was scary and disturbing, I 
hardly slept and felt completely out of balance. I felt how the 

spirits of the plants had travelled with the cuttings and now visited 
my sleep. I felt as if these spirits were killing me.— [30] 

After this disturbing dream she phoned her sister as she is used to do. Her sister told her 
that she should start using the plants. The dreamer asked her how, and her sister answered 
to start with offerings and wassie's, the Creole term for ritual purifying baths. The spirits 
of the plants had come along with the cuttings and wanted to be utilized. Since they were 
neglected, they started visiting the receiver of the cuttings in her dreams. All this scared 
her so much that she finally decided to remove the plants. However the plants and dreams 
still returned, the plants appeared indestructible and unstoppable and the dreams kept 
returning. Then she spoke to the plants 'I cannot use you yet, but I do find you beautiful!' 
After she had said so the dreams stopped. She concludes her story with the words that it 
is therefore better to steal plants because then you may actually use them without 
necessarily caring for the plants and their spirits. [31] 

In the other dreams this lady recognized, for example, her deceased grandfather, who was 
once a powerful piyai. These dreams are not just powerful for the one who dreams, but 
also important for the community as by this the people of the community will know that 
there is a direct communication between an individual and the spiritual world. Such a 
dream or series of dreams involve the individual, the society and the spiritual world 
(three layers as mentioned above). The sanctity of the spirits of the plants is obviously 
violated; here we recognize the notion that the reality of the dream is not experienced 
very differently from the reality of waking life. And it is this direct communication with 
the spiritual world that gives dreams an authorizing character, not only in matters of the 
religious specialist but also for communal affairs, for instance in solving conflicts, in this 
case, the inner conflict as well: should she be initiated as piyai or not? Becoming a piyai 
is a drastic chang e in life. Eventually, her transformation to piyai will become complete 
with the help of her dreams. In the dreams, as in the liminal period of initiation rites, 
preparations for the metamorphosis and the transition towards the realm of the religious 
specialist appear to be made. When she separates herself from the waking world, in her 
sleep and dreams, she meets her spiritual mentors in the dream-space, who have 
separated from the spirit world to 'teach' her. Every time on awakening after such a 
dream her consideration of becoming a religious specialist grows and becomes more 
convincing. The dreamer feels how the dreams guide her, and give her strength to emerge 
finally from her doubts into being a traditional piyai. Hence, her dreams can be qualified 
as transitional phenomena: facilitating a (major) transition in her life and stimulating 
maturation. [32] 

Portentous Dreams and Death 

Dreams of a predictive nature are very common in Amerindian society. These dreams are 
experienced as particularly valuable. Dreams around death are especially of great 
importance. The Arawak and Kari'na of the coastal area of Suriname freely share dreams 
which have portentous elements, with relatives, the elderly and others considered 
knowledgeable and trustworthy. This relative openness provides an opportunity to study 

the dreams and to check the contents against later events. For example, some years ago, I 
visited the Arawak village Pikin Powakka for the first time. It was on a social occasion 
when I accompanied a friend who had not seen her aunt for a long time. Since my friend 
did not have a means of transport of her own, she had asked me to drive her to the 
village. Her aunt, a Kari'na married to an Arawak man, was curious about me and wanted 
to know what I was doing in Suriname. After informing her about my research, she 
almost immediately came up with the following dream: "For a few days I have had a 
recurring dream. Every night I dream that deceased relatives, dressed in white clothes, 
dance in my yard and call me." Then she looked at me and asked: "What does this dream 
mean?" I replied that she herself knows what it means. With this evasive reply I referred 
to her own knowledge of dream symbolism. About two months later I heard from her 
niece that a few weeks after my visit, her mother, about 85 years old, had announced that 
she would soon leave for Coppenamepunt, her place of birth. She had requested her 
relatives not to bring her back under any circumstances. Shortly after her arrival at 
Coppenamepunt, she had a cerebral hemorrhage and slipped into a coma. Despite her 
strong request to be left in Coppenamepunt, she was brought back to her daughter in 
Pikin Powakka as there were no relatives to take care of her at Coppenamepunt. Soon 
after her return she died. [33] 

In the Arawak village of Cassipora, one of the male elders shared a similar dream with 
me. "My father," he said, "worked as a watchman and died three months ago. Before his 
death, I first dreamt that a new small slash-and-burn garden was being prepared. Then in 
my dream I saw a hut around which many people were running. I woke up in shock and 
thought 'my father is ill, I must go to him, maybe he has died'." After a short silence he 
recounted a second dream: "In a dream some days later I saw a sunset and heard a bell 
chiming. The week after [the dream] my father died." He explained that the hut he saw in 
his first dream symbolizes the place where the deceased are placed on the bier and that 
the garden referred to the graveyard. His explanations on his second dream were similarly 
direct, the sunset is the end of the day and thus symbolizes the end of life. The chiming of 
the church bell is an omen of death as well as it literally refers to the chiming of the 
village church bell upon the passing away of one of the villagers. The people he saw 
running around were the ones who were already buried there. He finished with the 
remark that as a gravedigger he did not fear death. [34] 

Since most Amerindian people, including the Arawak and Kari'na, draw on a substantial 
repertoire of dream symbols, cultural expectation plays a role. In fact, people are 
expected to have certain dreams on important occasions, here transitions. Through the 
dream the 'crisis' is recognized, and gives immediate cause to start acting out. Thus for 
these dreamers it is clear what the dreams mean and to whom they refer: their own 
parents' approaching death. They seem prepared to face one of the most fundamental life- 
crises, viz. the loss of a parent. The parents of the dreamers in the above cases were both 
of advanced age, in their eighties, and their health was deteriorating fast. [35] 

In these dreams these images are clear. In the first dream the dancing in the yard refers to 
traditions from the past as well as from the present. In the past indigenous people of 
Suriname buried their dead in their own huts or yard, followed by dancing on and near 

the burial place. Nowadays the burying takes place in the graveyard but the dancing is 
still done in the camp of the deceased. The white clothes of the dancers reveal the 
syncretistic element as it is reminiscent of the Catholic custom of burying people in a 
white shroud. [36] 

In the second dream the elder recognizes 'clearing a new slash-and-burn garden' as an 
omen of death. The running around of people can refer to the hectic situation that arises 
immediately after someone's death when the villagers are informed and hurry to the 
camp of the deceased, or to the dancing at the mourning rites. His second dream was only 
a confirmation for him of what he already knew: the sunset as the end of the day 
symbolizes the end of a life. In his opinion the tolling of a (church) bell can only refer to 
death; as explained above, upon death the church bell is tolled to inform the villagers of 


someone's death.— [37] 

However, can these dreams offer any help in coping with and accepting the inevitable 
loss, namely that of their parents with whom they have lived their entire life? 
Customarily, Amerindians take care of their aging parents. In such a close relationship it 
is not strange to recognize the omen of death at least unconsciously. As stated above, 
dreams have strong authoritative features, and particularly in cases of death the 
communication with the spiritual world through the dream enforces this. In the dream 
contact with the spiritual world is experienced and the dream images of deceased 
relatives have been recognized as omens of death. The dreamers felt worried but they 
also felt that 'these dreams prepare you emotionally for what is coming, you can prepare 
yourself.' The aunt used the exact words many others had uttered in the same 
circumstances: "the dream prepares your emotions," and with these words demonstrates 
the acceptance of the inevitable. Inevitable because the spiritual world had spoken. [38] 

Considering the above mentioned tripartite structure, if the element of revelation is 
present in this dream, it may be better to speak of a prediction. In both dreams neither 
secrecy nor sacredness are found; the dreams belong to the personal, private realm and 
are therefore only shared and discussed with certain people fit for this task, and not for 
reasons of secrecy. [39] 

The presence of the tripartite structure in all the dreams for both the dreamer and the 
ancestral spirits are quite clear. The dreamers first separate themselves from the outer 
world in the dream-space of their inner world (as an altered state of consciousness). Here 

7 8 

they encounter the spirits of deceased fellow-villagers. These ancestral spirits"- greet the 
relative, and the bereaved, i.e. the dreamer and others in this world, will find comfort in 
the reunification in the yonder world. From their dancing and jumping on a yard the 
dreamers recognize the omen of death. When they awake, they are able to integrate this 
knowledge in their lives by preparing themselves for the predicted loss. The ancestral 
spirits also separate themselves temporarily from their own world into the dream-space of 
the dreamers; here they temporarily transform to be visible for the dreamer and pass on 
their message and welcome a relative, after which they withdraw and re-enter their own 
world. Thus it is shown that the individual and spiritual structure of transition and layers 
of meaning are strongly connected: the spiritual and individual meanings cannot be 

separated; while the dreamer has to say goodbye to a relative, the ancestors welcome 
their relative. With this coinciding, the message proves it has come from the spirit world 
and should thus be accepted. The bond with the spirit world is (again) confirmed through 
the dream. [40] 

Dream symbols in relation to death are almost innumerable. They are connected to 
traditional Amerindian culture and religion and to Christianity. For many the meaning is 
still known, but its traditional roots are lost. I asked some elderly men to describe the 
contemporary customs of burial and aity dey (ritual of the eight day after death). [41] 

Immediately after someone's death the church bell is tolled; in 
villages without a church bell the traditional custom is followed: 
death is immediately made known by loud screaming and wailing, 
thus attracting the villagers who would immediately assemble at 
the camp of the deceased. Here they will stay during the first night. 
Relatives in other villages are warned, mostly through the radio 
transmitter. [42] 

In the old days when someone died the deceased was laid on a 
bier, made of two kraka's - these are Y-shaped sticks - and cross 
beams. The feet pointed to the east. Therefore we never lay babies 
to sleep in this direction. Nowadays the corpse is laid on a bench 
or placed in one's own hammock, with the head pointed to the 
north and a little raised. During the night the body is bathed, 
dressed in new clothes and tied up. The hands are crossed and the 
jaw tied up with a little piece of cloth. The mouth has to be tied up 
well because when it opens the spirit can return! First the body is 
put a little bit out of sight behind a screen, then the family take 
their places and keep watch over the dead body the whole night. 
All the time there should be someone with the body, otherwise 
there will be big problems: "When I was alive, you were with me, 
and now I'm dead you are afraid to sit with me?" [43] 

Close relatives will sit quietly, although from time to time the 
women will burst out in wailing. Others spend the night dancing, 
singing, drinking and sometimes playing cards. People wear old 
clothes. The songs are partly prescribed mourning songs, partly 
improvisations on the life of the deceased. This goes on for the 
entire night. At dawn people return to their own camps. [44] 

If someone is Roman Catholic people sing songs from the church, 
talk and 

drink coffee. Here there is only singing, not dancing, and drinking 
coffee, faya watra, to stay awake. The body cannot stay longer than 
24 hours; it has to be buried quickly. Nowadays one has to hurry 
to the doctor for a death certificate, then find a coffin, a shroud: 

many things to do. In the old days everybody would stay together 
and sit until the eighth day, now only till the funeral. Nowadays 
people gather again on the eighth day, aity dey; only family 
members will come and visit in between. From the first day until 
aity dey, a candle is lit every day at 4.00 p.m. This will burn until 
sunrise. Men have to shave and cut their hair in a particular way; 
women only symbolically cut a lock of their hair. Men cut men 's 
hair, women women 's hair. The one who cuts the hair drinks 
liquor before he or she starts, so there is a big chance they will 
easily get drunk. [45] 

On aity dey, at 7.00 p.m. the mourners assemble in the hut of the 
deceased and at 8.00 p.m. the 'pastor' (usually the schoolteacher) 
arrives, and then there is a service until 10.00 p.m. From midnight 
people start with the storytelling that lasts till 3 a.m. In Cassipora 
we sing and tell both Arawak and Anansi tories (stories). Of 
course, there are cantors or head singers but others are free to 
jump in, and a sad song can easily change into a merry or even 
festive or funny song. Only the men are allowed to sing. These 
stories are to comfort and cheer up the family members. Coffee, 
bread and biscuits are served at regular periods. Everything is 
mostly drunk in cups.— There is also liquor, now mostly cassiri 
(traditional light alcoholic drink made of cassava) because other 
liquor is too expensive. You have to drink the cassiri until you 
vomit; everything that you ate and drank with the deceased has to 
come out. Why? because it is our culture, all the aggravating 
things in relation to the deceased have to come out! You drink, you 
are forced to drink until you vomit. You don 't get drunk, because 
everything comes out, all the bad things; it is purifying. [46] 

Depending on the family ties the conclusion of mourning takes 
place after 6 weeks, 6 months or 12 months; this we call 'pura 
blakka' [Sranang, lit. 'pulling out of black', i.e. removing the dark, 
mourning.'—] . But these things, like the sixth week, sixie weekie, 
come from the Carib, but now, we Arawak do it as well. This in 
fact is a repetition o/aity dey but during that night people also 
dance and drink cassiri. Until the termination of the mourning 
period relatives are not allowed to dance and wear red clothes 
[red is the festive colour]. On the eighth day after someone has 
died his or her clothes/belongings will be burnt and the hut or 
house abandoned or even demolished. Nowadays the Amerindian 
villages have a graveyard, like other villages, but in earlier days 
people were usually buried in their own hut or yard, and where the 
dancing also actually took place. [47] 

In this account we can recognize many of the metaphoric links as described in the list of 
dream symbols below. Particularly images in dreams that are connected with old 
collapsing huts or newly built camps, anything that could be similar to a coffin such as a 
car, boat or even airplane. These dreams have a very strong impact and these abodes of 
death even cross the Atlantic Ocean. Many Surinamese Amerindians live in the 
Netherlands, through these dreams they know when family members are ill or have died. 
It is not unusual that after such an arousing dream they will phone to Suriname to have 
the contents of their dreams confirmed. [48] 


The result of a dream can be practical and can relate to the social group and group 
interrelationships. Ultimately symbolic images only make sense if they are translatable 
into a number of meaningful individual, social and cultural spheres (such as the different 
layers of meaning and the tripartite structure of dreams). The guides on the road towards 
understanding are the elders and religious specialists of a community, who carefully 
distribute their knowledge at the appropriate times. Through dreams, individuals are 
liable to acquire knowledge and power. Hence, dreams constitute an important source of 
knowledge. This can be experienced directly or indirectly: directly as messages from the 
spirit world, indirectly as a starting point for discussions or explanations which generate 
knowledge. In this regard, sharing dreams serves different purposes as well. Through the 
narrative it becomes a social event. Dreams can be employed to conserve and strengthen 
the existing order or induce innovation and change within both the social and religious 
context, using the authorizing capacities of dreams. Altogether, dreams of passage - as 
true reves de passage - provide means to engage socially, culturally and cosmologically. 
Thus for the dreamers dreams prepare emotions and facilitate crises. [49] 

Currently there is a notable interest in and research into religious specialists and medical 
plants from the tropical rainforests.^ Presently, the piyai and plants are almost 
inextricably linked, for instance, the International Day of Indigenous People opens in 
Suriname with piyai prayers and a ritual bath."" [50] 

It is strongly believed that the plants reveal their curing powers through dreams. More 
research in the field of the piyai and his/her practice in relations with dreams is needed 
for more insight into these matters. Certain dreams influence waking reality in the same 
way as experiences and activities of waking reality, not only in the religious domain, but 
dreams also have strong authoritative feature in the personal and social domain. And it 
are these characteristics that make that people can accept the comforting elements from 
dreams (and of the socio-cultural and cosmological environment) in case of major 
changes in life or loss of relatives or friends. [51] 

Dreams play an important role in the preservation of culture and traditions, particularly in 
the field of the religious specialist. Through dream telling knowledge in all kind of fields 
is passed on to new generations. Hence, as long people tell their dreams and listen to their 
spiritual world, the culture will stay alive and practiced. [52] 

Table: Examples of Dream Symbols 

(Note that this should not be conceived as a rigid system with static rules, as the 
dreamer is free for other interpretations) 

Subject of Dream 

Metaphorical Link 

General meaning 

Area 1 



Pregnancy/ 'you will 
have a lot of children' 


Krobia or kwikwi 

Small and oval 
(vagina-like) shaped 

Pregnancy 3 
of a girl 

Kari'na female, but 
also a man may 
have such a dream 

Pataka or Logologo 
like fish 

Long (penis-like) 
shaped fish 

Pregnancy of a boy 

Kari'na, female, but 
also a man may 
incidentally have 
such a dream 

Angling for big fish 





Seduction (by water 
spirit) 4 

Girl's dawning 

Kari'na (living near 
the coast) 

Cleaning cassava, 
fish, meat 

Female duties/tasks 

Pregnancy of a girl 


Picking and spinning 

Female duties/tasks 

Pregnancy of a girl 


Building a new hut 

A young man, 
wanting to live 
together with a girl, 
first has to built a 
new hut for his 

Finding a spouse 

Arawak, Kari'na, 
adolescent boy 

Buying a gun 

Shoot game for his 
father-in-law and 


Arawak, Kari'na 

Collecting mango 

Mango as symbol for 

Find a spouse, have 
sex or catch game 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Erotic acts 

Catch game, 
especially female 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Pricked on fishhook 
or needle 


Big change of being 
bitten by snake in the 


Water up to the knees 


Heavy rain 5 or bad 












Good sign 


Death or funeral rites 

Belief in 

Very good sign 


Own death 

Belief in 

A long life for 


Angling for big fish 

Scale of fish = 



Stuffing yourself with 

Greed, contradictions 

Always remain 


Visiting the lavatory 

Becoming rich or 

someone will make 
you feel ashamed 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Brother, sister or 
good friend arriving 

Funeral rites when 
people drink and sing 

Omen of serious 
illness or death 

Arawak, Kari'na 


Quarrel or fight 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Tigri (Jaguar, 


People gossip about 
you or are after you 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Land tortoise 

Wisdom, seriousness, 

Good omen in 


Sea turtle 6 

Bad spirit of the 

Bad omen 


A man 

Bad omen 


A deer 

Jumping to and 

Bad omen 


Funeral, everybody 
beautifully dressed in 
white and 

grieving, flowers on 
the grave 

Burial celebration, 
belief in 

Your life is going in a 

good direction; after 


[burial] there is 

sunshine [happiness] 

Arawak, Kari'na 


Reminds one of the 
sound when soil is 
thrown on the 

Bad omen, something 
goes wrong 

Arawak, Kari'na 




Taking your picture 


Someone is running 
after you to destroy 
your life 


Losing incisor 

Sign of decay 

Death of own child 

Arawak, Kari'na* 

Losing all teeth 

Sign of decay 

Death of an elder 

Arawak, Kari'na 

New hut/camp/house 
not entered 

Until Christian 
conversion the 
deceased used to be 

Omen of death or 

Arawak, Kari'na * 

buried in the old hut 
and people would 
dance on the grave 

New hut collapsing 
and rebuilt 


Omen of death of a 
family member 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Broken down hut 


Omen of death 

Arawak, Kari'na 7 

Leaky hut 


Omen of death 


Banana tree with fruit 
on a deserted 

Death of one of the 

Kari'na male 

Broken stairs 


Omen of death 


Loosing a shoe 


Omen of loss (or 
death) of partner 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Deceased family 
members dancing 
dressed in white 

facet of mourning 

Omen of death of 
close family member/ 

Arawak, Kari'na 


Release of emotions, 
is also crying. 
Symbolises the 
noise made after 
someone's decease. 

Omen of death of a 
family member or 
close friend 

Arawak, Kari'na* 


Food for the journey 
to the other world 



Big party in your own 

Post burial 

Omen of death within 
one month 

Arawak, Kari'na* 

Brother, sister or 
good friend arriving 

Drinking cassiri at the 
final mourning rite 

Omen of death or 
serious illness 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Dancing of family 

Mourning ritual 

Omen of death 

Arawak, Kari'na* 

Setting sun 

End of the day: end 
of life 

Omen of death 


New slash-and-burn- 


Omen of death 

Arawak, Kari'na 

Sun and rain 

Laughter and crying 

Omen of death of a 
distant family 


Open space 


Omen of death 



1 When marked * the symbol is also found among the Saramaccan (of the Maroon groups 
in Suriname). 

2 Cf. Tastevin 1914, p. 417; Kunike 1912, p. 229. 

3 Not only dreams refer to pregnancy; one should also notice other indications 
of pregnancy, as Granny Fotto of Bigi Poika recounted, 'When the moon is full, 
and you see the bird, who we Kari'na call buta, who flaps its wings, take 

a bath in the sand, for sure a girl will be born, and if this same bird makes 
the sound 'kring kring' for sure a boy will be born'. 
4Cf. Tastevin 1914, p. 414. 

5 Being mostly dependent on agriculture, hunting and fishing for their daily 
living, being able to 'predict' rain is important for the right time to plant 
and harvest. 

6 Only for areas where these animals live, such as Galibi. 

7 Kracke also found this among the Kagwahiv. 


L The research was funded by the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of 
Tropical Research (WOTRO). 

2. Also known as the Guyana shield, part of five nations: Suriname, French Guyana, 
Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil, i.e. the area bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the north, 
the Orinico river in the east, and the Amazon river in the west. 

3, Census 2004, ABS 2005. 

4^ Until recently it was assumed that the Arawak became established around 500 AD in 
the coastal areas of Surinam as the first peoples to live sedentarily in Suriname. However 
recent archaeological research places this under scrutiny and this new research may lead 
to the conclusion that Suriname may be inhabited for 10.000 years. The Arawak were a 
semi-nomadic people who lived in small groups of around 20 people. The Arawak not 
only differ in language, but were known as a peaceful people, contrary to the Kari'na 
who were seen upon as fierce warriors, and believed to be cannibals up to a century ago. 
The Arawak themselves find evidence of this in their own culture, such as their songs and 
dances which are peaceful, expressing the beauty of their surroundings, while the songs 
and dances are said to be much more directed towards war and hunting. However, Penard 
and Penard (1907-1908) also include more peaceful songs and dances in their studies of 
the Kari'na. 

5_, The decrease of the number of people speaking Lokono was accelerated during the 
recent domestic war (1986-1992), as most felt it was more convenient to adapt to the 
Surinamese lingua franca Sranan as the government at the time discouraged the use of 
their own language. There are a number of Arawak people who refer to themselves as 

(\ For the other Guyanas there is more literature on the Arawak, for instance Hill and 
Santos-Granero (eds., 2002). 
7. Census 2004, ABS 2005. 

8^ The dynamics in cosmology are obviously related to the individualism and 
independence of the people. Kloos mentions that individuals change and embellish ideas; 
he cites Chagnon (1969, p.4) 'In Yanomamo society is place for thinkers'. According to 
Kloos (1974, p. 26), this statement refers probably to many indigenous societies. 
9, For an overview on oral literature of the indigenous people of Suriname, see Van 

Kempen2002, pp.133-187. 

10. Cf. Ahlbrinck 1931, p.339; Penard & Penard 1907, p. 229 

11. Cf. Kracke on the Kagwahiv: 'dreams would be interpreted in terms of predictions 
about game or health, mediated by traditional dream symbols, 1981, p. 261; cf. Gregor on 
the Mehinaku, an Arawak-speaking people of Central Brazil, 1981, p. 354 

12. Cited in De Goeje 1943, p. 2. 

13. Cited in De Goeje 1943, p. 2. 

14. For an overview of Christian missionary activities among the Amerindians in 
Suriname, see Jabini 2004, p. 38-54. 

15. Suriname (a former Dutch colony) is a multi-ethnic society where the descendants of 
the British Indian laborers (known as Hindustani's) constitute the largest ethnic 
community, followed by the Creoles and the Maroons. The other communities are Jews, 
boeroes ('farmers', descendants from Dutch colonists and farmers), Javanese, Chinese, 
Lebanese. Nowadays the Brazilian community is increasing very fast, whereas a new 
wave of Chinese migration is also noticeable. 

16. For continuation on this subject I refer to Platvoet's (2004) discussion 'Does God 
have a Body? On the Materiality of Akan Spirituality'. 

17. With this I refer to Ter Haar & Ellis' notion (2004, p. 14) 'that religion refers to a 
belief in the existence of an invisible world, distinct but not separate from the visible 
one, that is home to spiritual beings with effective powers over the material world'. 

18. These kinds of dreams should not be discussed openly which constitutes the only 
restriction on the communication of dreams. 

19. Cited from Viveiros de Castro 1998, p. 469. 

20. Several authors on the Amazon Amerindians give these or similar descriptions about 
the soul and the transformational body, for example, Riviere 1994, p. 256; Baer & 
Langdon 1992, p. 81; Frikel 1971, p. 139, n.16. Descola (1994, p. 93) explains this as 
follows: 'In mythical times, nature's being had a human appearance too, and only their 
name contained the idea of what they would later become'. 

21. 1 use the singular 'cosmology' as a collective name, acknowledging that a general 
statement on Surinamese Amerindian belief systems cannot be made as they are too 
various and subtle, and professional insight is not complete. However, with regard to 
style I use the word religious(ly) in terms of adverb/adjective. 22. Cited in Bowie 2000, 
p. 119. 

23. Cf. Tambiah 1990, p.6. 

24. In this regard the discussion on the similarity with other religions and philosophies of 
life such as Hinduism, Buddhism, neo-Paganism, New-Age, etc. would be interesting, 
leading Rappaport (1979), for instance, to the notion of adaptive and maladaptive or 
dysfunctional cosmologies. 

25. Mainly Roman Catholic and the Protestant Evangelical Brethren Community 
Evangelische Broeder Gemeenschap, and nowadays a lot of small evangelical and 
charismatic congregations try to increase their numbers in Suriname and in particular in 
the indigenous villages. 

26. The idea of becoming ill when the messages of spirits in dreams are neglected is quite 
common. A lady from the Arawak village Powakka, converted to Christianity, is known 
as being regularly visited by the spirits of a healing stone, which she inherited from her 
father. However, she threw the stone in the Suriname river as she did not want to use the 

stone. Now it is believed by some of her relatives that the stone wants to be put into 
practice and speaks through her dreams. She does not want to know about these practices 
but every time after the dreams she gets high fever and feels severely ill for a few days. 

27. During the domestic war the bell of the church of Cassipora was brought down and 
not replaced. Hence presently when someone dies, people inform each other. The tolling 
of a church bell is not a typical Amerindian symbol of death, but in, for instance, Europe 
as well. 

28. By ancestral spirits is meant all (family members) who have died, not only the direct 
lineage ancestors. 

29. Disposable white cups irrespective of the language used, Sranang, Dutch or Lokono. 

30. Dutch is the official language of Suriname, Sranang the lingua franca. 

31. For example, Plotkin's research institution The Shaman's Apprentice program, the 
ACT (Amazon Conservation Team) and CI (Conservation International) in this field in 
Suriname. Besides research Plotkin has started a so-called 'shaman's school' where 
indigenous youngsters can again obtain knowledge in the field of the traditional 
medicinal plants. 

32. In 1993 the United Nations have declared August 9 as the International Day of 
Indigenous People, resolution no. 49/214. Since 2001 this day is celebrated in Suriname 
as the National Day of Indigenous People and from 2003 as a holiday, in 2006 the 
Surinamese government has decided to declare August 9 a permanent National Holiday. 


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Article submitted: June 25 2006 

Reviews completed: 28 December 2006 

Revised version submitted and accepted: 05 February 2007 

Published: 23 February 2007 


For her research on the dreams of the Kari'na and Arawak of Suriname, Dr. Elizabeth 
Mohkamsing-den Boer was sponsored by the Dutch Association for Tropical Research 
(WOTRO) and attached to the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Her 
present research focuses on 1) Kari'na cosmology of the Kari'na in Suriname and 2) the 
identity of the descendants of the indentured laborers from British India in Suriname and 
the Caribbean. 


Please cite this article as follows: 

den Boer, Elizabeth Mohkamsing. (2007). Dreams in Surinamese Amerindian 
Cosmology KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology 
[On-line Journal]. Available at: [Date 
of access: Day, Month, Year]. [61 par.] 

2007. Elizabeth Mohkamsing-den Boer. All rights reserved.